Saturday, March 21, 2009

There is little doubt that a TUXEDO does things for a man, sartorially speaking, like no other element in a gentleman's wardrobe...

Think of the word tuxedo and images abound of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, hair parted and slicked, Champagne somewhere within reach, visions of silk satin, vases teeming with Calla lilies and the lazy, haunting notes of a lone alto sax haunting the background like the ghost of Beau Brummell.

Then again, a more apt visual could have Marlene Dietrich as she appeared in the Thirties movies classic Morocco, slithering across the screen in a man-tailored tuxedo, stiff-front shirt, bow-tie and studs, sacrificing none of her sultry sex appeal in the process. Indeed, "Black Tie" connotes, even defines, true elegance. Like the little black dress in women's ready-to-wear, the tuxedo is a classic and has been experiencing a renaissance in the last decade.

Today we are once again in the midst of "occasion dressing" not unlike that of the Thirties when propriety and elegance were part of everyday life and putting on one's finery, particularly for evening, was eagerly embraced. The elegant era of Bogart and Bacall, Fred and Ginger, William Powell, Cary Grant and Hollywood glamour still inform our every day lives in terms of fashion. We look longingly back to an era and its icons, when style mattered and dressing well was a virtue.

Like much of what is classic, the tuxedo has suffered its share of fashion aberrations over the years. Originally worn by residents of the tony enclave in upstate New York called Tuxedo Park, the garment is, basically, a standard suit style made up in the fabric and detailing exclusive to formal evening dress. It is considered a less formal style than the tailcoat and was ushered into vogue by Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who preferred it for evening dinners at his country estate in Norfolk. While a guest of the the Prince, Tuxedo Park resident James Brown Potter saw the new form of evening dress and had one made at Poole's along Savile Row. Returning stateside, Potter shared his enthusiasm for the semi-formal evening suit with his fellow residents, including Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco mogul who built Tuxedo Park, William Waldorf Astor, Grenville Kane, director of the Erie Railroad, and Allen T. Rice, editor of the North American Review, each of whom had their tailors copy Potters new duds.

Gathering together for dinner and cigars at Delmonico's in New York, the Tuxedo Park denizens began wearing their new version of formal wear, prompting stares and gossip as to the propriety of men in what looked to be abbreviated versions of the formal tailcoat. Not knowing what to call the jackets or the men fashionably bold enough to wear them in public, people referred to them as "tuxedos" and a fashion icon was born.

But it wasn't until the fall of 1886 and the first Autumn Ball in the newly completed Tuxedo Park that the tuxedo became a household word. As a prank, Griswold Lorillard, impish son of Pierre, along with his friends, in attempt to lampoon the jackets their fathers wore to dinner in town, lopped off the tails of their tailcoats and made their grand entrance to the ball, much to the shock of fashion observers and virtually everyone in attendance. As one society editor wrote at the time: "At the Tuxedo Club Ball, the young Griswold Lorillard appeared in a tail-less dress coat and waistcoat of scarlet satin, looking for all the world like a royal footman. There were several other abbreviated coats worn, which suggested to the onlookers that the boys ought to have been put in straitjackets long ago."

It is therefore to young Griswold Lorillard that we owe credit for putting the word tuxedo in the lexicon of men's fashion. Yet certain theorists contend that the tuxedo's genuine beginnings or ancestral heritage stems more from the French-born "robe de chambre" (chamber robe) worn by wealthy Parisians during the mid 19th century.

For a man to wear a dressing gown when entertaining at home during the Victorian period was considered quite fashionable. However, in the company of women, the coat had to be long enough to cover the buttocks. When the company was exclusively men, no such rules applied and so many fashion-conscious men had abbreviated versions of their "robe de chambre" made by their tailors, which they wore when entertaining male friends.

A silk brocade waistcoat and black four-in-hand silk tie updates any formal Tuxedo

With the return of classic elegance in men's fashion, traditional, somewhat nostalgic formal clothing and accessories have witnessed a rebirth in popularity as well. And while the stylish man's wardrobe would almost certainly include a well-tailored tuxedo, there is nothing wrong with renting if one has to, provided the rental is from a reputable house that deals only in quality clothing. The better rental companies always stock the most classic styles and provide knowledgeable staff for help in putting a look together. Best to avoid any shop that advertises tuxedos in fruit salad shades or promotes any color other than black for evening.

Formal shirts in particular are as elegant as they ever were, with the stiff bat-wing collar style, a fashion legacy of George Bryan "Beau" Brummell, once again being worn, with either a pique or pleated bib front. The most luxurious formal shirts are hand-sewn and made of pure cotton voile or fine broadcloth. Double barrel French cuffs are worth the extra price they may command and look decidedly elegant. Cummerbunds are strictly a matter of choice but even among those who favor them, they are best worn with single-breasted, peaked lapel tuxedo jackets only.

Decidedly elegant is a luxurious woven formal silk waistcoat worn under a tuxedo. The most stylish ones are in subtle tones of gray, silver, or deep burgundy, and feature woven geometric motifs, raised stripes or mini-checks. In turn, cuff links are most elegant when they are conservative and discreet, such as simple ovals or circles of black onyx. Always appropriate to evening attire is a silk or linen pocket square peeking from the breast pocket of a tuxedo or smoking jacket. White is always right, although holiday tones of gold, burgundy or emerald green silk can add a festive touch.

As for formal shoes, patent leather is considered classic, whether as a lace-up or slip-on. But for comfort and elegance, formal slippers in silk faille or velvet with gold embroidered initials at the toe cap are the ticket. To keep things elegant and luxurious, silk or lightweight wool formal hosiery works best in solid black or with the addition of a subtle clock pattern that is truly Old World in style.

For a roguish finish, a silk or silk and cashmere muffler either casually tossed about the neck or neatly tucked in as an ascot looks superb peeking out from an all-black evening coat or trench. And the addition of a boutonniere in one's lapel--red or white carnation only-- would do Fred Astaire proud.


  1. I absolutely love the silk brocade waistcoat in the picture but am having trouble finding anything similar. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

  2. Now I know the history of tuxedos. I didn't expect that it was once a semi formal attire, that it was meant to be worn on not so important occasions because this men's clothing is so elegant. It somewhat lifts a man to a higher degree of fashion. However, you said dark colors, black in particular, are preferable in tuxedos. but I think white tuxedos are also stylish in a very enticing way.

  3. Men that wear formal shirts olook so much smarter than men without.